Walker Lake losing loons

RENO — On the wind-swept desert of Northern Nevada, spring in one tiny town has been welcomed for years with a festival to a celebrated group of visitors — migrating loons.

Perilously clumsy on land but graceful and sleek in water, the large birds with a haunting call used to descend on Walker Lake by the hundreds to gorge on a fishy feast of small tui chub before continuing their journey to who knows where.

Not this year, and the reason is Walker Lake itself. Its water quality and levels have declined and along with them the rich bounty of small fish that attracted the loons.

The result: Hawthorne’s Loon Festival, held each year in late April, was canceled, replaced by a day to bring awareness to Walker Lake’s teetering ecosystem and ongoing, multimillion-dollar and multifaceted efforts to save it from a salty demise.

Walker Lake once was considered one of the largest migratory stopovers for loons west of the Mississippi River.

“We don’t have enough loons to invite people to come and see them,” said Lou Thompson of Hawthorne, an organizer for the Walker Lake Working Group. The organization has been championing the lake’s predicament for years.

The festival used to draw 300 to 400 people to the small community of less than 3,000, a good turnout for a place Thompson describes as being “in the middle of nowhere,” about 95 miles southeast of Reno.

The highlight was boat rides, bringing loon watchers within marveling distance of the typically shy birds with velvety black heads.

Last year, the first boat out spotted a few. The others saw none at all.

“Now we have a difficult time even launching boats,” Thompson said.

Walker Lake, a remnant of ancient Lake Lahonton, is fed exclusively by the Walker River and melting snow in California’s eastern Sierra. It is one of three terminus lakes in North America with fresh water fisheries. The others are Pyramid Lake north of Reno and Summit Lake in extreme northwest Nevada.

Since the early 1880s, Walker Lake’s water level has plunged about 145 feet, largely because of upstream agricultural use. Each year, water also is lost through evaporation under the scorching summer sun.

As water levels drop, so does the lake’s life-supporting riches.

Walker Lake reached an all-time documented elevation low of 3,930 feet above sea level last year, said Kim Tisdale, a fisheries supervisor with the Nevada Department of Wildlife. As a consequence, impurities, or total dissolved solids, reached an all-time high of 16,775 milligrams per liter, a lethal level for young fish.

So far, larger adult fish, including threatened native Lahontan cutthroat trout raised in hatcheries and acclimated slowly to Walker Lake’s water conditions, have managed to survive. Not so for eggs or smaller fish that the loons feed on.

“It’s hard on their kidneys and gill function,” Tisdale said.

Last year, biologists found no young tui chub. For the loons, the all-you-can-eat buffet was out of business. But Walker Lake may not be destined to a briny desert sink.

In 2002, Congress passed a law sponsored by U.S. Sen. Harry Reid to provide $200 million to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation “to provide water to at-risk natural desert terminal lakes.”

That launched the Desert Terminal Lakes Program. Another $175 million was appropriated last year.

In 2005, $70 million was designated for the Walker Basin Project, a comprehensive scientific and economic program to study the river basin and water use. It also set aside money to buy water rights from willing sellers to get more water to the lake.

The studies are being coordinated and conducted by the Desert Research Institute and University of Nevada, Reno.

Scientists have been studying not only how water moves within the basin, but the viability and economics of planting less water-gulping upstream crops. The goal is to have a healthy river and ecosystem, but not at the expense of upstream users and rural communities.

“This is a huge undertaking,” said Daniel Klaich, vice chancellor at the Nevada System of Higher Education who is overseeing the program. “If you withdraw water from agriculture, you want to do it in such a way as you don’t create a dust bowl.”

Klaich said the program has received about a half-dozen offers from holders of water rights. But not all water rights are created equal. Older rights are at the top of the pecking order when it comes to disbursement. And not all may benefit Walker Lake.

“I could buy water, and it would never make it to the lake,” Klaich said, explaining that water rights most desirable would be those nearer to the lake, as opposed to far upstream.

Researchers plan to release details of their studies in June to a stakeholders group that includes agricultural users, the Walker River Paiute Tribe, residents, and various local, state and federal officials.

“This is something that is the lifeblood for the people in this valley who have been there generations and generations,” Klaich said. “They have to be involved.”

Thompson, who first came to Hawthorne in the 1940s, fears time is running out to save the lake’s fishery.

Barge tours on the lake this summer may be replaced by kayaks because of low water levels.

He wonders, after a third year of drought, how much longer the larger fish will be able to hang on as the water continues to recede and quality deteriorates.

It makes him sad. But he remains optimistic that all the studies and pledges of cooperation may finally bring fresh water to a dying desert lake.

He just hopes it’s not too late.

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